2015 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

i love you more than you know

Jonathan Ames, I Love You More Than You Know

Impulsively picking up a used copy of this essay collection at The Book Trader in Philly, I cracked it open while sitting across from the fountain at Logan Square, and instantly found a new favorite writer. Ames’ candidness isn’t for everyone (the blurb describing him as “an edgier David Sedaris” is an understatement), but along with a willingness to depict himself in the worst possible light, he comes across as utterly sincere and human (and also laugh-out-loud funny). I’ve since devoured two more similar books of his, but this is the best of them.

bad kid

David Crabb, Bad Kid

Crabb and I are the same age. While my own teenage years differ from his considerably (he did copious amounts of drugs, whereas I was more (perhaps unintentionally) straight edge), I spent much of his memoir nodding my head in recognition. With a self-deprecating wit that keeps in check any hint of self-importance, he recounts what it was really like to be a (mostly closeted) gay high school student in the early ‘90s: the music, the fashion, the tempestuous rush of surging emotions and anxieties, all of it an evocative backdrop for his gradual journey to self-acceptance.

clasp

Sloane Crosley, The Clasp

Crosley’s first novel builds on the promise of her two earlier essay collections. Initially straightforward but increasingly more convoluted, its story, while tautly constructed is just a receptacle for its three distinct, cliché-free primary characters, college friends who reunite about a decade after graduation at a wedding. While her prose is as darkly funny as ever (especially via an ancillary character responsible for the book’s title), her three leads are never less than likable, despite their considerable neuroses and quirks.

purity

Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Franzen gets a lot of flack for being an unpleasant shit in real life, and that’s too bad because his latest doorstop of a novel might be his best yet. It has a finely drawn female protagonist, an ever-expanding supporting ensemble, a big but effective narrative twist halfway through and such timely concerns as the notion of privacy and the consequences of exposing it (a la Julian Assange). And, unlike a few other lengthy tomes I read this year, none of its 500+ pages felt unnecessary.

First Bad Man

Miranda July, The First Bad Man

This might July’s best work since her wonderful debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know ten years ago. However, it wouldn’t necessarily make for a great film—the peculiar symbiosis it details seems better suited to thought than action, which is not a bad thing, especially when confronted with a lead character as vivid, enigmatic, winning and annoying as Cheryl Glickman. July also excels at fully committing to a wildly strange and challenging concept until it nearly seems conventional (though thankfully her writing never is).

my struggle book two

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 2: A Man In Love

I should probably reserve a spot on these year-end lists for each volume of Knausgaard’s six-part magnum opus as I make my way through them. Volume 2 is much longer than its predecessor, and yet even more concentrated, mostly confined to the author’s relationship with his wife. I fear I can’t do justice in describing just what these books achieve in the length of a small blurb, because via his singular point-of-view, Knausgaard can often alter one’s perception of the entire world.

how to build a girl

Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl

Moran’s deservedly a national treasure in the UK. While her first novel is no less Anglo-centric than her nonfiction work, it’s still essential for American anglophiles and for teenage girls of all cultures. Covering roughly the same time period as Bad Kid (that’s all the two books share in common), it’s explicitly autobiographical but Moran proves she can adapt her own coming-of-age into a story anyone can relate to without dumbing it down or obscuring its powerful feminist leanings.

markandvoid

Paul Murray, The Mark and The Void

If Skippy Dies was the quintessential modern comic novel about Irish boarding schools, Murray’s long-awaited follow-up does the same for investment banking—admittedly an unlikely milieu for the author’s Oscar Wilde-like humor, but his attention to those specific idiosyncrasies that really flesh out a character suggests he could take any setting and make it funny (and also riveting and considerably emotional). He even manages to insert an author character named Paul into the story without taking the reader out of it.

visions and revisions

Dale Peck, Visions and Revisions

Ever since his early landmark experimental novels, Peck has suffused his fiction with autobiographical elements (and vice-versa). Even this slim but potent “memoir” concludes with an extended prose poem of sorts. Still, for someone who has built up a self-mythology that’s not always easily discernible, it’s refreshing to read this actual autobiographical account—even one made up of letters, essays, journal entries and other ephemeral remnants of a life lived.

Fosse-by-Sam-Wasson

Sam Wasson, Fosse

Given my love of All That Jazz, I’ve always wanted to find out more about Bob Fosse’s life, to see how “real” a representation Roy Scheider’s alter ego was. Even at 700 pages, Wasson’s biography doesn’t provide a clear answer to that question, in part because Fosse was such a complex character himself. While the subject’s obsessiveness and perfectionism both make for an entertaining read, Wasson’s greatest achievement is simply detailing and lending context to Fosse’s own historic accomplishments.

My complete 2015 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Jason Heller, Taft 2012
2. Andrea Martin, Lady Parts
3. Bob Odenkirk, A Load of Hooey
4. Patton Oswalt, Silver Screen Fiend
5. David Thomson, The Big Screen: The Story of The Movies
6. Sam Wasson, Fosse
7. Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
8. Douglas Coupland, Generation A
9. Robert Hofler, Sexplosion!
10. Clifford Chase, Winkie*
11. Hilton Als, White Girls
12. Robert Christgau, Going Into The City
13. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Two: A Man In Love
14. Miranda July, The First Bad Man
15. David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts*
16. Amanda Petrusich, Pink Moon (33 1/3 series)
17. Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
18. Jonathan Ames, I Love You More Than You Know
19. Nick Hornby, Funny Girl
20. David and Joe Henry, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
21. Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour
22. Tracey Thorn, Naked At The Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing
23. Julia Glass, The Widower’s Tale
24. Dale Peck, Visions and Revisions
25. Jonathan Ames, My Less Than Secret Life
26. Gina Arnold, Exile in Guyville (33 1/3 series)
27. Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House*
28. Maria Semple, This One Is Mine
29. Isaac Oliver, Intimacy Idiot
30. Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl
31. Barney Hoskyns, Hotel California
32. Jack Kerouac, On The Road*
33. William Hjortsberg, Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan
34. David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and other Essays
35. Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories
36. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay*
37. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City
38. Jonathan Ames, The Double Life Is Twice as Good
39. Jonathan Franzen, Purity
40. Hanya Yanagihara, The People In The Trees
41. Daniel Clowes, The Complete Eightball 1-18
42. Jim Gaffigan, Food: A Love Story
43. Tom Spanbauer, In the City of Shy Hunters*
44. Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing In America, The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar
45. Paul Murray, The Mark and The Void
46. Sloane Crosley, The Clasp
47. David Crabb, Bad Kid
48. Derek Jarman, Modern Nature*

Beyond the top ten, I also really liked the beautifully reprinted edition of Clowes’ indispensible alt-comic book (the original home of Ghost World), Yanagihara’s unique and unsettling debut novel (her follow-up, A Little Life is my most anticipated read of 2016), Andrea Martin’s memoir (a reminder as to why she should be a national treasure), the Toltz novel (a dollar bin find!) and Oliver’s promising debut essay collection. Since I spent nearly three months wading through it, I also have to mention Hjortsberg’s alternately dazzling and redundant Brautigan biography; it might’ve made my top ten if it was half its actual length.

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2014 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

tooth fairy

Clifford Chase, The Tooth Fairy 

One of two memoirs I read this year mostly written in succinct, one-sentence paragraphs, Chase’s tome gets the nod over Tamara Shopsin’s (admittedly interesting) Mumbai New York Scranton because Chase is a far more engaging wordsmith. Thematically he jumps around a lot, from the profound effect The B-52’s first album had on him in college to caring for his elderly parents, but his prose holds it together—some of it so deceptively simple that you want to re-read and thoughtfully consider each zen-like sentence.

all families are

Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic

I’ve admired Coupland’s caustic wit and unique worldview for years, but nothing could’ve prepared me for his sixth novel (which came out in 2001). Not to be hyperbolic, but this tale of a family reuniting in Florida for one member’s launch into space is completely and delightfully insane, even more so than his apocalyptic Girlfriend In A Coma. It reminds me a little of A.M. Homes’ (more on her below) Music For Torching in that it begins with a bang and just gets crazier from there, but without falling apart.

zona

Geoff Dyer, Zona

Best known for But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer has written an entire book about his obsession with the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker and it’s one of the best books about film I’ve read in years. Wisely forgoing an academic approach, Zona is more like an idiosyncratic memoir and perhaps the most convincing argument ever made to check out a bewildering, enigmatic, occasionally sublime three-hour-long Russian movie.

may we be forgiven

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven

My friend Michael suggested this one after I included Music For Torching in my top ten last year. If anything, this makes that book seem as normal as The Da Vinci Code—it begins with a horrific, outlandish event that is the catalyst for everything that follows and remains startling for nearly 500 pages. Hilarious and unsentimental like the best Vonnegut, it turns out to be both a pitch-black comedy and a sincere story of redemption.

king 112263

Stephen King, 11/22/63

I’d never read King before, but I almost instantly got why people love him so much: the man knows how to hold your attention. This mash-up of time travel, the Kennedy assassination and small town narrative is so potentially absurd that I can’t imagine a lesser writer (or possibly any other writer) being able to pull it off. Pray that the inevitable television adaptation gets it right.

my struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One

I was intrigued from the moment I first heard about Knausgaard’s ridiculously ambitious Proust-like six volume autobiographical novel. Imagine if Sufjan Stevens had made good on his “50 albums for 50 states” project, and you’ll get a sense of what the author is trying to do here. With lengthy, bravura passages about things as gloriously mundane as a garage band performance or a home ravaged by years of hoarding, it’s not a light read but rewarding enough that I plan on devouring the next volume soon.

bone clocks

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

This is unquestionably a return to Cloud Atlas form for Mitchell. I’m not sure it surpasses that earlier book, and the final section is distractingly tonally different from the five that came before, but Holly Sykes might be Mitchell’s greatest character ever—her book-length evolution from bratty teen to weathered elder is the narrative’s stunning constant, the beating heart in a labyrinth of sci-fi convolutions and visionary imagination.

little failure

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure

Shteyngart’s memoir leaves no doubt of the autobiographical nature of his novels. With a voice as comically distinct as Woody Allen or David Sedaris, he writes mostly and perceptively about his megalomaniacal parents (they gave him the title nickname) and emerges enlightened and amused rather than bitter or broken.

sisterland

Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland

Despite loving Prep and American Wife, I initially avoided Sittenfeld’s latest because of its chick-lit cover, and I should have known better. For a tale of two psychic sisters in suburban St. Louis, Sisterland is remarkably grounded and genuine, filled with memorable characters and a fascinating premise regarding a prediction no one wants to see come true. With her fourth book, Sittenfeld has become as seemingly effortlessly great an American fiction writer as Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen.

i loved you more

Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More

If I had to pick one favorite book of the year, it might be this long-awaited effort from one of my favorite authors. As usual, Spanbauer writes about Idaho, Manhattan in the 1980s, being gay (and an outsider in general) and unrequited love; also as usual, he writes like absolutely no one else. Of his five novels, this might be his most affecting and devastating one yet.

My complete 2014 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Marcello Carlin, The Blue In The Air
2. Matthew Zoller Seitz, The Wes Anderson Collection
3. Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday
4. Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters
5. Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure
6. S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer, Flood (33 1/3 series)
7. Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic
8. Stephen King, 11/22/63
9. Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires*
10. Howard Sounes, Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney
11. Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked
12. Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
13. Saul Austerlitz, Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes
14. A.M. Homes, This Book Will Save Your Life
15. Tamara Shopsin, Mumbai New York Scranton
16. Peter Biskind (ed.), My Lunches With Orson
17. Douglas Coupland, Worst. Person. Ever.
18. Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge*
19. Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing
20. James T. and Karla L. Murray, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York
21. Jim Gaffigan, Dad Is Fat
22. Matthew Kennedy, Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s
23. Tony Fletcher, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga Of The Smiths
24. Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater*
25. Derek Jarman, Sketchbooks
26. Stanley Elkin, A Bad Man
27. Dana Spiotta, Lightning Field
28. Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of An Imaginative Life
29. Ruth Reichl, Delicious!
30. Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed
31. John Waters, Carsick
32. Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
33. Geoff Dyer, Zona
34. Bill Bryson, A Walk In The Woods*
35. Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland
36. Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang
37. Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage
38. David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
39. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One
40. Carol Leifer, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Crying
41. Clifford Chase, The Tooth Fairy
42. David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
43. Lena Dunham, Not That Kind Of Girl
44. Tom Perrotta, Nine Inches: Stories
45. Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman
46. Dale Peck, Martin and John*
47. Greg Kot, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway
48. Amy Poehler, Yes Please
49. A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven
50. Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stuck In The Middle With You
51. Samantha Bee, I Know I Am, But What Are You?*
52. Paul Harding, Tinkers
53. Tara Murtha, Ode To Billie Joe (33 1/3 series)